How Our Emotional Wounds Sabotage Our Parenting and What To Do About It

Is your reaction to your children’s behavior out of proportion to the situation at hand?

This happens to all parents from time-to-time, but if you notice your intense emotions with your children are more frequent than you would like, you are probably coming face-to-face with an old emotional wound. When our child’s behavior elicits a strong reaction from us, it usually can be tied to a past hurt and/or an unrealistic expectation of our child, not what is happening in the moment.

Stepping back to recognize that our strong emotions stem from our history can help us gain perspective when we feel as though our children are the cause of our anger, anxiety, or sadness. At first, it can be difficult to determine where our big feelings are coming from, but if we take time to look inside ourselves and determine the link to the past we will become more self-aware. Parental self-awareness leads to more peace within our families because we can avoid projecting our pain onto the situation and take an objective view before responding with anger.

For example, when my daughter was under a year old she often preferred my husband’s company to mine. This obviously wasn’t an intentional rejection of me, but nonetheless it hurt my feelings. As a psychotherapist and a first time mom I overthink and put a lot of pressure on myself to raise an emotionally healthy child, (which is probably why she preferred my husbands calm, confident presence to my anxiety in those early days.)

“I questioned if I was doing something wrong, and in my lowest moments wondered if even my daughter wouldn’t love me.”

When she was ten months old I went away for a couple of days to a friends wedding. I missed her tremendously while I was gone and when I came back I expected her to share in my excitement to reunite. When upon my return she didn’t show me the level of attention I expected her to I felt heartbroken and worried about our bond. I cried in my room that night after putting her to bed and reached out to a parenting expert to see what I should do.

As you can see, my emotions were out of proportion to the problem at hand, but why? After much reflection I realized my reaction to her very common baby behavior stemmed from my old wounds of feeling rejected by others, and also my expectation of what a mother/child relationship *should* look like.

These culturally ingrained expectations could have led me to retaliate or subconsciously distance myself from her, but that’s not what happened. The good news is, because I took the time to understand my thoughts and feelings I turned my old pain into a learning experience for myself instead of a dent in our relationship. I didn’t project my feelings of inadequacy onto her and those days of her preferring daddy quickly faded.

My daughter is my greatest teacher because she innocently uncovers my raw wounds for me, and inspires me to heal them.

Common adult reactions to emotional wounds being activated are: Fear/anxiety, anger/yelling, dissociating/numbing/ignoring, or rejecting/shaming/distancing from the child to protect ourselves from pain. In the example I shared above, I used rejection, but you can insert any childhood behavior that upsets you and apply this perspective to your parenting.

Two examples of unhealed wounds:

"Before I became a mom, nobody told me how frequently parenting would touch on the wounds I still carry from my childhood, and we ALL have them. Why? Because parents do the best they can, but none of them can meet our needs completely."

Experiencing an old memory or emotional wound can be scary, painful, and confusing if you don’t understand what is happening. So today, I would like to share with you several parenting tips that will help you stay calm when your painful childhood wounds awaken.

5 Tips for Managing Active Emotional Wounds:

1. Use the Four Second Rule. When you notice an intense feeling of sadness or rage welling up inside of you, take 4 seconds to breathe before you respond. Four seconds is all you need to make the best decision. Walk out of the room if you need to, but take four seconds (or more) until you feel you can make a healthy response to the situation at hand. During this break, ask yourself if the child’s behavior could be hitting on a childhood wound inside you. Becoming aware in the moment is the first step to staying calm.

2. Say NO to your children. Boundary wounds are common and cause parents to feel guilty. When we feel guilty about saying “No” it could be because our parents did not give us the attention we needed so we feel compelled to overcompensate. It could also be that our parents ignored our boundaries, or they rejected us if we tried to maintain a boundary resulting in people pleasing behavior. But, if we recognize our lack of boundaries and tendency to overcompensate we can quiet the guilt in our mind, and say no to activities that aggravate us before we flip our lid. Nine times out of ten our children can feel that we don’t want to be playing them. So why not find another way to connect that is pleasurable for both of us. Maybe we have more patience sports that day instead of playing with dolls. Try that instead.

3. Accept crying and complaining. Children need to release energy and big emotions through expressing negative feelings. Often their behavior has nothing to do with the situation at hand. Instead, they need to release emotions built up from the daily stress of life through crying or complaining. Children feel stress and it needs to be expressed. I will admit that my first reaction when my daughter cries is “what are you so upset about?” but if I slow down and just let her cry in my presence, I can usually figure out the answer. It’s usually that she is hungry, scared, overstimulated, tired, or frustrated. Instead of shaming our children for crying we can support them with empathy and space to express without judgment.

Take the pressure off of yourself to rescue the child in these moments and let them cry while you are present for support if they want it (some children want space when they are upset). When you permit crying, the crying typically ends more quickly than if you shame or punish a child for crying. You could say, “it’s ok to cry, I can hear you are disappointed, but it doesn’t change my decision.” Then wait for them to finish. Accept that these tears may have a meaningful purpose, even if you don’t understand what it is right now.

4. Work on your self-awareness and self-compassion. Journaling or therapy are the two most effective ways for developing self-awareness. After a hard day, sit down for 10 minutes, write out what happened, and reflect on your childhood or recent past. Is there something this situation has in common with what happened to you in the past? If so, write down what it could be and why this circumstance upset you. Once you connect to your history and find compassion for yourself you will be less reactive the next time a wound is touched. You will understand where your feelings are coming from and be able to make a rational decision.

5. Create accurate expectations. Learn about childhood development and what behaviors are appropriate for each year of their life. You might be surprised to learn that your toddler or teens behavior is typical for their developmental stage. For example, the human brain is not fully developed until about 25 years old, and even then it remains malleable and continues to learn through experiences. The pre-frontal cortex is the decision making area of the brain and it is one of the last sections of the brain to mature. Therefore, our children need us to help them make decisions all the way up to adulthood. In addition to this, if our child has experienced a significant trauma or loss it can delay their developmental capabilities.

Parenting is complicated and at times mysterious to all of us. It will take practice to identify your areas that require growth and work through your emotions, but it could be the key to a happier and more loving relationship with your children. I hope these tips help you slow down and reconsider your reactions during difficult moments in parenting. We all have them, and we won’t get it right all the time, but at least we can try. Remind yourself that it is ok to make mistakes as a parent, but repair the damage through an apology, and start fresh next time. Keep moving forward, parents!

For more tips on increasing the emotional well-being of you and your family, please join my private Facebook group, Emotiminds. In this group, we share information and guidance for authentic and conscious parenting and child care.

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